Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Peak Musical Experience in New York City

I had my sights set on attending the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN this past weekend. But, when it became apparent that my wife and I would only be able to attend for two of the four days and therefore miss certain performers and ensembles I started looking for alternatives to the 7 hour drive to Knoxville.

I then saw that Bill Frisell was going to be at the Village Vanguard in New York City that same weekend. More research revealed flights to New York were cheap for that day, tickets for both of his sets were still available, and what looked like a great little hotel in the West Village had vacancies for that night.  And so it happened.  But as great as Bill's two sets at the Vanguard were, that wasn't the peak musical experience in New York City.

The details aren't important, but after a series of rejected alternatives - as if an unseen hand were guiding me - I ended up in The 55 Bar on Christopher Street at about 5:15pm after having arrived in NYC that morning.  What attracted me to the place was its reputation as a dive bar that dated back to the prohibition era.  It can be difficult to find a cool place after say 4:00 in the afternoon in the Village:  previously empty old man's bars can suddenly become filled with NYU students and loud tourists.

The 55 Bar wasn't like that.  A little after 5pm on a Saturday there were just a few people at the bar, Tom Petty and David Bowie music was playing on the jukebox, and Guinness was on draft.  It was going to be a nice, chill place to hang for a little while before we figured out what to eat before queuing up for Bill Frisell's set at the Vanguard.  Little did I know that less than an hour later I would be seeing and hearing some of the best live music I have ever experienced.

The atmosphere was so nice there at 55 Bar that we didn't want to leave.  The kick-ass lady bartender said there was going to be good music starting soon and that we should stay.  If we needed to eat there was a taco place around the corner where you could get food to go and bring it back in.  So that's exactly what I did.  In the time it takes to pour a Guinness I had gone to pick up four tacos and come back.  A few more people had entered the bar.  And by a few I mean a lot.  The place was suddenly pretty packed.  And before I even noticed a band had started.

I feel dumb saying this but at that time I was only familiar with the band Snarky Puppy by name, so I didn't realize that this "random jazz band" I was checking out featured Michael League (the founder of Snarky Puppy) on bass, Chris Bullock (of Snarky Puppy) on sax, and Ross Pederson on drums (isn't he in that band too?).  I could just tell that these guys were good and that the singer they were backing up was phenomenal.

Her name is Alina Engibaryan.  She's a fantastic songwriter, one of the best jazz singers you've ever heard, and her keyboard makes the most amazing, crunchy vintage sound.  Her music was like a more complex Norah Jones "Come Away With Me".  Here's a snippet I recorded on my phone.  I wish I had recorded the whole set. If you know of a recording of this set please let me know.

Her music is a little more poppy than I'm used to, but having seen the organic live at 55 Bar version I know it's the real deal.  And with that backing band (Michael League, bass; Chris Bullock, saxophone; Ross Pederson, drums), her jazz-informed songs were elevated to a level that was complete ear candy.  The sound in 55 Bar - the acoustics in what is essentially a no-nonsense, no-attitude, cash-only bar - was probably the best I've ever heard in a venue like that.

I guess everybody else must have known just who it was they were watching play, but to me in that moment I was just watching complete unknown musicians make jaw dropingly cool art.  Even though the room was at capacity, with people lined up outside to get in, the vibe in there was respectful, conscientious, and ultra attentive.  We stayed for Alina's entire first set, which caused us to line up later than I would have liked for Frisell.

The line outside the Village Vanguard for Bill Frisell's early set on 3/24/18
It would be hard to say that anywhere in the Vanguard is bad, but where we were seated was not ideal.  None of that mattered when Frisell began.  With him he had Rudy Royston on drums (the secret weapon), Thomas Morgan on bass and Eyvind Kang on viola.  Bill's opening number stretched for well over 20 minutes and that's no exaggeration.  The second tune was really two tunes and the waiter was already bringing by the check for your "one drink" before it ended.

When the set was done the room cleared but we were allowed to stay since I had tickets to both of Bill's sets. We got to sit wherever we wanted this time and chose a little raised up two-top on the right with a fantastic view of the stage.  For the 2nd set I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea and it almost did me in, but I squinted and made it through.  I almost liked Bill's first set better - it had more improv - but in the 2nd set he played this little miniature electric 12-string guitar which was really cool.  And once again, Rudy Royston kicked ass.

Not being super late night people, we headed straight to the room after Bill's 2nd set, which ended after midnight anyway.  It wasn't until I woke up not hungover thank goodness the next morning (who doesn't love New York on a beautiful Sunday morning?) that I started to realize that even though the whole point of the New York trip was to see Bill Frisell, the real musical highlight happened two hours before he played.  I started Googling and only then started to realize who it was that I had seen the night before.  Alina Engibaryan and her band was one of those peak musical experiences - the kind that you always remember.

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